With two awards from this year’s Venice Film Festival safely under its belt – Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Fabrice Luchini – Christian Vincent’s L’Hermine has already proved its artistic credentials. But part conventional courtroom drama, part love story, it’s difficult to see what Vincent is driving at with a storyline which reveals the French justice system in all it’s achingly slow bureaucratic glory running alongside a laconic, middle-aged romance. The courtroom scenes lack drama and the love story is so slow burn as to be barely noticeable. Luchini is terrific as always as Michel Racine, the misanthropic, hypochondriac criminal court judge who may, or may not, have had a love affair with Ditte, played by enigmatic Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen. Yet, despite the excellant quality of the two leading actors and a good supporting cast including Corinne Masiero (Discount) and Michaël Abiteboul (Papa ou Maman), L’Hermine never seems to gather pace or purpose and feels flat and drawn out.
Racine is a judge in a small provincial town in northern France. He is a distant, humourless man who presides over his court with particular attention to protocol and has a reputation for handing down harsh sentences. His latest case is the murder trial of a young man accused of killing his seven-month old baby. While selecting jury members, he realises one possible juror is a women he had a relationship with several years before. As the murder trial unfolds, it’s clear Racine is still in love with Ditte, but does she, or did she ever, feel the same way?
American TV series have shown time and time again that courtroom dramas make for interesting, compulsive viewing. Not so those depicting the French system which is hidebound by seemingly outmoded, unnecessary codes of conduct. Vincent’s film does manage to portray a judicial system at odds with the people it aims to serve. Racine is a stickler for detail and his haughty reminders to the court about the proper forms of behaviour and address underline how far removed he is from the real human drama being played out before his own eyes. The couple who have lost their young child appear angry, confused and intimidated by the court proceedings and the whole system is ill-equipped to discover the truth behind the infant’s death.
Luchini infuses Racine with enough humanity outside the courtroom to have the audience rooting for him in the relationship with Ditte while Babett Knudsen adds an exotic twist to the understated romance. This is Babett Knudsen’s first French film. She is best-known to international audiences for her role as Prime Minister in the Danish TV series Borgen. Effortlessly elegant and attractive, it’s to be hoped she can be persuaded to take on more Francophone roles in the future.